Welcome to Memoir Salon, Session 13, featuring an excerpt from Snaddlegate Rudder: Going Back to the Land, 1971–1985
Snaddlegate Rudder: Going Back to the Land, 1971–1985
by Kitty Axelson-Berry
Short bio from the author: In 1971, my then-husband and I moved onto 23 acres of woods near Amherst, Massachusetts and tried to live simply. We sawed down trees and created a spot for a house, a garden, and a rough mile-long driveway. We built a cold, leaky geodesic dome using hand saws and chainsaws, using our own and friends’ labor, spending about $2,500 altogether. Our first daughter was nine months old at the time and we lived in a tent. The dome burned down a few years later when I was pregnant with our second daughter, and we rebuilt, this time a warmer house with the added virtues of electricity, running water, and four gas-powered room heaters to supplement the wood heat. I later became a newspaper reporter and editor, then founded Modern Memoirs, Inc., and the Association of Personal Historians.
Short description from the author: This stream-of-consciousness memoir, dictated to my oldest daughter and then expanded upon, explores some of the graces and mistakes of going back-to-the-land in the 1970s. We were adult children of privilege trying to raise a house, two children, a marriage, and our own food. This is a continuation.
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Why We Were So Stupid… and What We Ate (continued)
What a mess we were, first-time parents, first-time farmers, first-time builders. Had Jerry learned some farming, maybe construction, too, at one of his prep schools in Colorado and Vermont? Or during his family’s cross-country and Alaskan camping trips? First-time adults. He at twenty-four, a father, rock-and-roll band “manager” or was it supplier, I at twenty-one a new mother with no skills, experience, muscles, or money, which left me with mostly resentment, trying to turn ourselves around from the comforts and blinders of the 1950s and 1960s, the so-called Greatest Generation.
Perhaps instead of trying to build a house and raise our own food, we should have bought a house and raised our own food. Dozens of deteriorating farmhouses were for sale for the equivalent of a beginning high school teacher’s salary, with barns, well-water, streams, fields, and vistas (and difficult to heat). Again, this was 1971, small is beautiful, grow-your-own-food, get off the grid, don’t spread poison, don’t support the military-industrial complex, don’t have many needs, don’t have needs that cost money.
We were babies in the woods. First we cleared the land and a half-mile-long driveway with a chainsaw that only Jerry could start up and use. The pull-cord was impossible for me to yank, and I spent my time, in-between nursing and getting water etc., lopping small branches from already-fallen trees with an ax or a lopper and hauling them around, making piles for later burns, and bringing cordwood closer to a wheelbarrow and eventually the shed.
I was a waitress at the Lamplighter Steak and Seafood Restaurant, the place with a two-story milk bottle out by the road, and I had to look clean, bathing in local streams with a wary eye for wandering fishermen; Kristie was nine months old. Would I have cut big trees if I’d had more muscle and time and was right-handed? Not likely. Even a thin tree, ten inches diameter, grows very tall if it’s in the woods and can’t find sun. And when trees go down, they fall on other trees, and you’re balancing precariously on a tangle of branches, maybe some bees, a snake now and then, trying to get through both of them.
We weren’t strong enough for the work, we women. One afternoon in about 1976, with maybe four feet of snow topped by three inches of glare ice, we were exceedingly cold indoors, with the house insulated by undershirts and a few newspapers. It was Denise, who lived in one of the cabins built on the Hill by friends, and Lana, who was an apprentice stone-mason, and me. Jerry and the boys were out of town traveling with the rock band or something, mostly hanging out and making new friends, and we had run out of wood, not even green wood to burn. The closest down-tree that we could get to was a good-sized hemlock near the driveway split, going straight ahead to Vinny’s and left down the hill. We all burned a lot of hemlock and pine, and we all had a lot of chimney fires. Later, we pushed potato peels into the fire to loosen the creosote and help it break away, come down in chunks from the stovepipe.
We were trying to saw the tree trunk up for firewood but the chainsaw kept stalling and then we couldn’t get it started. So we got out the two-man crosscut saw. But we couldn’t get any leverage in that tight space and didn’t have the arm strength anyway. I’d left the kids alone in the house and knew they were probably fighting with each other by now. It was starting to get dark but we still had no wood at all to burn. We realized we could not do it and burst into tears, all three of us, bleeding tears that of course froze on their way down our faces.
Back to the topic at hand, food.
OK, the garden. The first summer, we used a chainsaw to clear the driveway, six-tenths of a curving hilly mile, and land for the house, garden, and future orchard, and we built the dome, and we started bringing and dumping soil and manure. There were about ten of us camping out. The driveway was undriveable between October and June (too wet or too much snow) so we were carrying everything like kids, food, laundry, tools, and lumber on our backs.
We did the world’s worst job of growing our own, despite hard work and sincerity. The soil was not only heavy with clay but belched rocks, and there was no water for about a mile. We filled five-gallon containers from Len and Missy’s at the bottom of the hill or at any of the local post offices, Leverett or Montague, and Jerry drove them up in the Scout when he could. Females supposedly weren’t strong enough to move the bolts on the wheels to put it into four-wheel drive. When he wasn’t around or the driveway was undriveable, I filled one-gallon plastic milk containers and walked two or four of them hanging from a broomstick for a yoke, stooped over because Kristie was also there on my back, in a backpack. We never watered the garden because there was no water. And we didn’t know enough to start the seeds in a cold frame. We put them right into the ground, which meant they didn’t have a good start or a sufficient growing season.
We did end up with a few vegetables, mostly oversized zucchini. Zucchini are best at about an inch wide, eight inches long. Ours were the diameter of a canning jar, about five inches wide, cut into thick slabs. The first summer of the garden I canned about four dozen jars of this zucchini. It was like a dishwater, leather, and wood medley. The flesh itself had turned into watery greyness, the dark green skin was an approximation of leather, the seeds were close to wood. I made soup. Watery, tasteless. Fortunately, the dome froze often at night, even when we stoked all four stoves, and at least a quarter of the jars broke. I’d pick up a jar of zucchini (or tomatoes, string beans, applesauce, or worse yet, grape jelly) and it would break into a mess of food and glass on the floor and countertop, usually down my legs too. Did I get all of the shards out of the jam? Off the floor? Worrisome! I tried not to serve glass shards with the bread, butter, and jelly. And I tried to get all the glass off the floor, using wet rags because paper towels were too expensive, and cleaning the rags by hand. But those shards tended to get stuck in the spaces between plywood sheets, which meant we had to walk with care.
Anyway, during the summer I’d hear Jerry whooping up the driveway in the Scout and then he and his “buddies” would haul giant garbage bags filled with ears of corn for me to shuck and can right away, before the sugars converted to starch. Surprise! I felt like the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin, the female version of Sisyphus. And it was hot, too, when the corn, zucchini, tomatoes are harvested. Canning on a woodstove in a geodesic dome without window openings or insulation is like being in a greenhouse in Las Vegas. Add mosquitoes.
Anyway, Jerry would come roaring in, dragging heavy garbage bags filled with corn, string beans, or grapes, or with joint-compound buckets filled with tomatoes. “I brought you a present!” Then he’d sit down, pop a beer, smoke a bone, pass out. I began to develop ulcerative colitis then, if not before.
I hope it’s OK to share all this with you. Maybe it isn’t…
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Modern Memoirs, Inc. writes and preserves clients’ memoirs and family histories in high quality books, specializing in full-length as-told-to narratives.